The end of the United Kingdom?

In 1698 a group of Scottish businessmen established a colony in Central America, on the Isthmus of Panama. The ‘Darien Project’, named after its location on the Gulf of Darien, turned out to be a disaster – fatally so, for most of the men and women who went out there between 1698 and 1700, but a financial disaster back in Scotland as well.

A bit like the South Sea Bubble, which caused such embarrassment for investors in England a few years later, the Darien scheme had involved a lot of lowland merchants and members of the political class, and with the collapse of their investment, they faced ruin. The term ‘sovereign debt’ hadn’t been invented, but effectively, so did the Scottish nation itself.

Since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England with the death of his cousin Elizabeth Tudor, the same Protestant branch of the Stuart/Stewart dynasty had ruled both Kingdoms, but they did not yet form a United Kingdom.

England was richer and bigger, but its taxpayers weren’t enthusiastic about bailing out the Scots. In the end, they did so, but on fairly harsh terms. Scotland’s disastrous imperial adventure was paid off, the Scottish currency was stabilized (at the humiliating exchange rate of one English shilling to the Scottish pound) and in 1707 the Act of Union created a United Kingdom – and a Union Jack, based on the combined flags of St George and St Andrew. But Scotland lost its Parliament, and it would be over a century before another monarch visited – George IV in 1822.

Wilkie, George IV

There’s a saying that kilts are worn by Scots abroad, and by Americans in Scotland. This gruesome image demonstrates that this is not strictly true. David Wilkie, George IV in a kilt, 1829

Instead of expanding their own empire, the Scots got access to the English – now British – Empire instead. Many of them went out to work for the East India Company and to the North American colonies, and in due course to Australia as well.

A lot of Scots came to New South Wales in the early years, including several early Governors (Hunter, Macquarie, Brisbane), some of the most senior NSW Corps officers (William Paterson, George Johnston), and the first free trader (Robert Campbell).

Thanks to Scotland’s different legal system, though, there were relatively few Scottish convicts. The standard of proof in criminal trials was higher, with a possible verdict of ‘Not Proven’, as well as ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not Guilty’. There was no law of trespass in Scotland either. So a Scotsman was transported for a great crime, an Englishman for a minor crime, and an Irishman for no crime at all – or so it was said, almost certainly by a disgruntled Irishman.

During the 19th century, Scottish immigrants were influential in many areas. Many became pastoralists, and I’ve always wondered how much their background understanding of Scottish land law affected their attitudes towards Aborigines. Scotland had no law of trespass, which may have made them more tolerant of traditional hunting routes across their land.

Other immigrants included doctors and engineers trained in the Scottish university system. One of Queensland’s early Premiers, Sir Thomas McIlwraith,  studied engineering at Glasgow University under William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, and became a mining engineer before entering politics – a rather more impressive educational record than most Queensland Premiers.

All this does rather suggest that Prime Minister Tony Abbott was on the back foot when he recently told The Times in London that ‘Scottish independence would be a victory for the enemies of freedom and justice’, causing offence in Scotland, and howls of derision at home.

Personally, I have no strong feelings one way or another about Scottish independence, but I certainly don’t think the breakup of the United Kingdom would herald the end of civilization as we know it, and I do wonder why Tony Abbott bothered to insert himself so ham-fistedly into other people’s business.

In general, while Scotland has had a significant influence on Australia, Australia has had absolutely none on Scotland (though I believe there is a colony of wallabies on an island in Loch Lomond, introduced in the 1920s).

Apart from Tony Abbott, there’s one other embarrassing exception. In 1995, Mel Gibson* produced the film Braveheart, and won multiple Oscars for his portrayal of a woad-dappled warrior almost completely unlike the original freedom-loving William Wallace. The film was hugely successful at the time, and has had a weird post-production role in a variety of independence movements. I’ve written about it here.

The yearning for Scottish independence predates Braveheart, of course. On my one and only visit to the Orkneys, way back in 1975, I was body searched at Kirkwall airport by security staff who thought (God knows why!) that I might be associated with the Tartan Army**, who were at that time setting off bombs in Scottish postboxes because they carried the letters QEII (the Queen is Elizabeth the First of Scotland).

I have no idea what will happen in the referendum in a couple of weeks time, but I’m sure that Tony Abbott’s intervention has done the Independence movement no end of good. William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered in London, by the English. Abbott might be advised to give Edinburgh a wide berth for a year or so, or risk being disemboweled.

* Mel Gibson was born in New York and moved with his family to Australia at the age of 12. Australians tend to claim him as their own when he’s doing good things, like winning Oscars. When he’s shouting anti-Semitic diatribes, not so much.
**Not the football supporters, the other ones.

Giles Whittell, ‘Scots Independence a Bad Idea, says Australian PM’, The Times, 16 August 2014 – behind paywall.

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